Book review: Islamism and Democracy in India

By Kashif-ul-Huda,

Jamaat-e-Islami Hind of today is not the same organization that Abu Ala Maudidi launched in 1941. Starting with the aim of establishing Islamic governance, its purpose and role in India has slowly changed to the Jamaat becoming a champion of secularism and democracy. Its detractors will say that this apparent change in Jamaat-e-Islami Hind (JIH) is just tactical, but researcher Irfan Ahmad’s extensive ethnographic fieldwork, archival research, and data analysis, published as “Islamism and Democracy in India: The Transformation of Jamaat-e-Islami,” proves that the JIH belief in secularism and democracy is “deeply ideological.”

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The Jamaat began its life as an isolationist organization, it was an idea chosen by journalist-turned-Islamist-ideologue Maududi who made attainment of an “Islamic state”-the main goal of this organization. Striving for the Islamic state meant that Jamaat members could not participate in democracy, seek government employment, or even study in universities as these were considered helping a non-Islamic system. “Any institution that did not confirm to the Jamaat’s definition of Islam was idolatrous, whether it was run by Muslims or non-Muslims.” [p.73]

To provide alternative to its members and supporters, JIH started a number of primary schools and institutions for higher education. Jamiatul Falah in Azamgarh was founded in 1962 towards the end. Talking about the Green School, established in Aligarh to prepare future members and leaders, Irfan Ahmad, through his painstaking research, shows that “instead of transforming the society, the school was transformed by the society.” Establishment of schools brought the Jamaat closer to common Muslims. The goal of the school and parents were not aligned but it was the pressure from the masses with aspirations for their children to move ahead in a materialistic world that slowly forced school administration to seek government recognition for their school.

The Jamaat’s position on Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) depicts the process of change in this organization. AMU was originally considered a “slaughterhouse” by Maududi since in his views modern universities take away the spirit of Islam from the students. So strong was this feeling that Jamaat members and sympathizers were banned from studying or teaching at AMU. Ban on sympathizers was lifted in 1957 but members had to wait till 1960s to get admission in AMU. In 1965, the Jamaat, in a total departure from its founder’s position, defended the “Muslim character” of the AMU.

Similarly, the Jamaat had slowly come to accept the electoral democracy. It was only in 1980s that members were allowed to vote in the elections which Ahmad informs us was “a culmination of a long drawn out internal process- from 1961 to 1985- within the Jamaat” [Author’s emphasis]. This happened because “Islamism,” or Islam as understood by the Jamaat, “is not frozen in discourse but is dynamic,” argues Ahmad. For Maududi, Islam was synonymous with the Islamic state but Jamaate Islami Hind came to the realization that “an Islamic state is just one among several aspects of Islam, not the foundation.” This was possible because “in the changed context of postcolonial India, the Jamaat (re)interpreted Maududi’s ideology and came to a new interpretation of Islam.” [p.190] This thinking came about because the myth that an Islamic state was just around the corner was broken, and according to Ahmad, this happened because the Muslim public rejected the Jamaat ideology by not joining in its boycott of elections, government jobs, or modern education.

Now a defender of secularism and democracy, the Jamaat refused to go along with the Republic Day boycott call issued by the Babri Masjid Coordination Committee in December 1986. In fact, a year after Babri Masjid’s demolition, it helped form the Forum for Democracy and Communal Amity (FDCA). This was the first instance of the Jamaat building an alliance with non-Muslim activists. A decade later, it invited Shankracharya to one of its meetings where the Hindu religious leader blew a conch and chanted “Om.”

Spread over 300 pages, this book fills an important gap in the research of Indian Muslims. Discourse about Islam and Muslims in India is laced with either ignorance or deliberate attempt at obfuscation. There is a lack of original research among various aspects of Indian Muslim life and history. Irfan Ahmad did a wonderful job of gathering information from original sources, interspersed with field visits and data analysis. It is social science research at its best.

Book: Islamism and Democracy in India: The Transformation of Jamaat-e-Islami
Author: Irfan Ahmad
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Year: 2009
ISBN: 9780691139203

This book is also a wonderful source of information on the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) and how it became radicalized in response to a growing Hindutva mobilization against Muslims. Banned since 2001, SIMI has been blamed for terrorism in India but there is very little in public domain about this organization. Ahmad, with original literature, traces the radicalization of SIMI, but there is nothing there to suggest that SIMI ever went beyond rhetoric. Even the government, though continuing the ban on SIMI has not been able to show any evidence of its involvement in terrorism. JIH broke ties with SIMI in early 1980s.

Students Islamic Organization (SIO) was launched in 1982 and continue to function under the guidance of JIH. During the 1990s when SIMI was getting increasingly political, SIO remained apolitical and focused on its work for the welfare of Muslim students. Even after the 2002 anti-Muslim genocide in Gujarat, SIO remained responsible in its reaction. The book chronicles many showdowns that SIMI and SIO had in Jamiatul Falah. The approach taken by activists of the organizations responding to various incidents showed the much different temperament of the two organizations that share the same ideological roots.

Even outside the Indian context, this book is important in understanding why Islamists become radicalized. The Indian version of Jamaat-e-Islami evolved to become a defender of secularism and democracy, whereas the same organization in Pakistan and Bangladesh charted a different path. Ahmad gives examples of Egypt and Algeria where Islamists have become radicalized as a result of brutal state repression. In Pakistan and Bangladesh, the Jamaat took advantage of electoral democracy and participated in elections but they have been only marginally successful. While JIH contemplates participating in electoral democracy as a political party it should keep in mind the failed experiments of its fraternal organizations in neighboring countries. JIH has served Muslims of India well as a social and welfare organization and it should remain so.